Danger Beneath the Sea (2001)





Danger Beneath the Sea is a watered-down light version of Crimson Tide, which itself was a rip-off of The Hunt for Red October, which itself paled in comparison to the world's greatest submarine movie of all time, Gone With the Wind. This was originally a made-for-TV movie from 2001, which wound up on cheapass DVD in a $1 bin at Wal-Mart. It's not too bad, really, with some much higher production values than you would expect and a cast that really seems to be trying hard, certainly worth a dollar.

And now on to our show...

Our movie takes place aboard an American submarine. The USS Lansing (SSN-795) is a Los Angeles class nuclear-powered attack submarine, one of the newer 688(I) boats optimized for land-attack missions as well as interdiction and sea-denial. There is, of course, no USS Lansing, nor any SSN-795, on the current US Navy roster. The Navy doesn't like allowing real ship names to be used in b-level movies, so it's not a surprise that they came up with a fake name.


The Lansing (stock footage).

The boat's captain, and our film's hero, is Commander Miles Sheffield, played by 33-year old Casper Van Dien (who sadly missed his shot at A-list movie stardom after a fairly good turn in Starship Troopers). The Captain (and, yes, I'm going to call him that) is a smart and dedicated flag officer, though young and somewhat inexperienced. The Lansing is his first command, and he's determined to make it a good one. Van Dien does a very admirable job in his role, and he looks pretty sharp in his uniform.


The Captain.

We open dockside at the nuclear sub base at Bangor, Washington, as the Captain welcomes his crew aboard the Lansing. They will be leaving for deployment into the North Pacific, three months duty patrolling the depths. The crew shuffles aboard, saying their last goodbyes to loved ones and tasting the fresh air one last time. I'm way too claustrophobic to serve on a sub, so good luck to them.

Now, if the hulking bulk of the Lansing's sail in the background of this opening scene doesn't seem to match up with the subsequent stock footage inserts of a Los Angeles class boat, you'd be right. That boat back there is the HMCS Victoria, a former Upholder class SSK bought from the British by the Canadian Navy to have something to sit quayside and rust. The Canadian Navy agreed to let the crew film the exterior of the Victoria, and also allowed them to use a full-scale training mock-up of a submarine's command bridge to stand in for the Lansing. And I'm not sure, but I think they also filmed some interior scenes on the Victoria, though not in any "sensitive areas", but mostly just bunkrooms and hallways.


The sub's sail.

Out to sea now, we get some scenes to help us get acquainted with the crew. There are 141 men on a Los Angeles class boat, but there are really only three people we need bother worrying about in any detail...

The Executive Officer (XO) Lt. Commander Albert Kenner. The XO is a hard-driven career Navy man with firm convictions and a blinding desire to become Captain one day. He will be our film's bad guy.


The XO.

The Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Pete LaCroix. The CPO is in charge of the boat's crew, a middle-aged man who looks like a chubby Tommy Lee Jones with a horribly fake Louisiana accent. He will be our hero's sidekick.


The CPO.

And finally we meet Able Seaman Ryan Alford, a fairly random enlisted swab who looks like Sean Astin. Of all the background characters, AS Alford gets the most screen time by far and will prove to be a hero in his own right by the end of the film.


Alford.

Ok, we learn along the way that the Lansing carries six nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles. Keep this in mind.

After some time at sea, a radio call comes from COMSUBPAC in Hawaii (the US Navy's submarine command center). Those dastardly North Koreans are testing a new ballistic missile shortly and the Lansing is called upon to sail near the Korean shore and gather intel on the launch. As you know, the North Koreans occasionally shoot off missiles over the Sea of Japan to remind us that they are still there.


We also see a newspaper front page while the boat is still at Bangor, which is a nice touch.

So the Lansing comes up near the eastern coast and checks things out. They cruise around at periscope depth and watch for any signs of the launch. They are all alone out there, just them and the sharks.

Meanwhile the North Koreans have launched not just a ballistic missile, but a ballistic missile with a live nuke! We see it fly up from the launch pad, but then BOOM! For some reason, the nuclear warhead detonates by mistake over the coast of North Korea, sending a massive electromagnetic pulse across the region. The EMP knocks out electrical power for a large part of Korea and Japan, frying the circuits with a jolt of energy.

The Lansing is close enough to the explosion to be caught in the blast wave. Still in shallow water, the boat is rocked hard by the wave, sparks fly, bodies thump, and fires break out. The boat's damage control parties rush to put out the fires and restore power. Quickly, the Lansing is almost fully operational again. The only systems that are still out are the radio and the satellite line, meaning that they are totally out of contact with the outside world.


The blast wave damages the boat.

The main problem is that no one on the Lansing knows for sure what just happened. All they know is that a "nuclear-ish" explosion just knocked them around. Without any word from COMSUBPAC, or anyone else out there, they have no way of knowing what is going on. It's this unknown that drives the entire plot of our movie. Left completely on their own, the crew of the Lansing must decide what is happening above them and what their response will be. There are two competing camps, those that believe there's a nuclear war going on, and those that believe that a more logical and mundane answer is more likely.

The Captain isn't sure what happened, but his gut tells him that there's no war. As such, he declines to order the sub readied for combat, and definitely refuses to start plans for a nuclear counterattack. In the polar opposite camp is his XO, who believes with all his heart and mind that a global nuclear war is raging above them. He further believes that as such the Lansing is obligated to launch her nukes in retaliation. Normally on a US Navy boat the Captain's word is final, no questions asked. However, on the Lansing, the dynamic is different. The XO is a bitter man, filled both with misguided uber-conservative patriotism and a blazing jealousy and rage for being passed up for Captain.


The Captain and the XO have one of several tense conversations.

We see here the first signs that the XO is considering the ultimate step, a mutiny to take over the boat. As the XO has been on the Lansing a long time now, he has a number of friends on the command staff who think like he does and would be willing to help him in his plans. Behind the scenes, preparations are being made, allies sought, the keys to the small arms locker obtained, and a lot of harsh words spoken in private. The Captain seems oblivious to all this internal dissent, or maybe just doesn't think that it will actually come to mutiny.

To answer some questions, the Captain relents to approach the nearest large South Korean port city and surface for a look-see. This they do, and the Captain and the XO go up onto the observation platform on the top of the sail alone. To their dismay, they can't see any lights on the shore, where there should be millions. The XO says that this is a sign that the city was nuked, proof that there's indeed a war going on. The problem is that the reason why they can't see any lights is that the EMP burst from the nuke fried all the electricity, and not because the city was nuked itself. But they don't know that. Even the Captain is wavering now, not sure just what is going on. The XO is 100% sure, however, and he's not happy that the Captain doesn't think like he does.


The Captain and the XO on the sail.

There was a nuke-test-gone-wrong, however, and the air near the surfaced sub is still thick with radioactive fallout (which the crew should have known about, you'd think they'd have some Geiger counters aboard). The Captain and the XO both inhale potentially fatal doses of fallout in the short time they were exposed. The Lansing's corpsman (doctor) is buffaloed by the simmering pro-fight command staff into giving the XO the proper dose of anti-radiation drugs but only giving the Captain a placebo shot. The result of this is that the XO is up and normal again very soon, while the Captain remains bedridden, barely lucid and clearly not fit for command. [Editor Pam: There's a lot wrong with this scenario, so bear with me. If the Captain and the XO were woozy and barely lucid, especially if the symptoms occurred this quickly, they must have gotten a very large dose of radiation, so large they might not survive even with the best medical treatment. The symptoms sound as though their central nervous systems were affected, and it takes a lot of radiation to do that. If they got enough radiation to affect their central nervous systems, they should also be experiencing vomiting and diarrhea, although I'm not sorry the writers chose not to show this. And there's no such thing as an "anti-radiation drug." Radiation causes physical damage, and there's no such thing as an antidote, any more than there's an antidote to a bullet wound. Medical treatment for large radiation exposures consists of supportive therapy to keep the patient alive while the body heals itself, and some procedures to help the healing process along. There are drugs that under some circumstances can be used to remove from the body radioactive particles that were inhaled or swallowed, but even if that's what the corpsman gave the XO, the damage would still be there. I don't know for sure, but I suspect corpsmen aren't authorized to administer these drugs. In the civilian world it takes a real doctor to do it, but I don't know what the Navy allows under these circumstances. Possibly the corpsman administered potassium iodide, which a corpsman might be authorized to do, but all potassium iodide does is prevent uptake of radioactive iodine into the thyroid, which may help prevent thyroid cancer later on. It won't help the weakness and mental confusion. However, there's a risk of an allergic reaction to the potassium iodide, so it's not something that should be administered without due consideration. Mind you, all of this is theory I learned in the classroom, as thankfully I've never been responsible for dealing with anybody who was exposed to a lot of radiation. But this brings up my previous question, how do they know they were exposed to radiation at all? Their symptoms could be psychosomatic for all anybody knows.]

And it's under this dicey legal ground that the XO takes command of the boat. Naval code says that if a vessel's captain is "unfit for command" then the second-in-command has the right to take over "until such time as the captain is fit for duty again". The confrontation takes place on the bridge, where the still-woozy Captain has just then come. The XO and his co-conspirators rush onto the bridge, weapons drawn. The XO coldly orders the Captain to hand over his command key and to leave the bridge. The only member of the staff who sides with the Captain is the CPO, his long-time friend. Clearly disadvantaged, and not wanting to get shot, the Captain and the CPO relent and are locked in the Captain's stateroom.


Eek, mutiny is the worst thing you can imagine in the military.

The XO, still firmly believing that a nuclear war is happening, now orders the Lansing's nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles prepped for launch. The targets will be in North Korea and China, though we don't see exactly where. The computer console readouts showing the missiles being readied are very good, looking believable. This movie benefits greatly from being filmed on an actual submarine, lending much-needed authenticity to the story.

Ok, remember the lowly crewman Alford? Well, he and one of his buddies overhear the commotion on the bridge and puts the pieces together. They determine that the Captain was removed against his will and that they need to do something about it. On a submarine, he who controls the bridge controls the boat, so they know they need to somehow regain control of the bridge. But first they need the Captain back. And so the two crewmen manage to breach the security guarding the Captain's stateroom and release the Captain and the CPO. Along the way they have to bump some heads and pull some knives, but it all works for them.


The crewmen get the keys and a gun.

The Captain is still groggy from the radiation sickness, but they get the corpsman to administer the correct dosage of medicine so the Captain can recover. The corpsman is reluctant at first, which seems to go against his oath to do no harm, but he's convinced in the end (the CPO holding a pistol to his head might have helped also). The Captain regains his strength and his faculties quite quickly (this movie has a short run-time so we can't waste any of it) and is now able to take back his boat.

So, armed with confiscated pistols and M-16s, the Captain, the CPO, and the two crewmen storm the bridge to regain control. Not expecting any trouble from within, the XO didn't do much to secure the bridge, and he pays for that. The bridge is retaken quickly, though there's a fair amount of shoving, punching, shouting and threatening at first.


The Captain wants his command key back.

The countdown to the Tomahawk launch is already started, however, and the Weapons Officer needs the command key back to stop it. That key is currently around the XO's neck and he's not about to give it up without a fight. The Captain and the XO get into a fierce one-on-one fight while everyone watches. After some struggling and grunting and straining, the Captain manages to turn the pistol away and pulls the trigger. Bang! The XO slides to the deck, blood leaking out his mouth and a bullet in his chest. The Captain yanks the key from the dying man's neck and tosses it across the bridge to the WO, who disables the countdown just in time!


The XO dies a justified death.

Ah, but remember that they still have no contact with the outside world, right? Well, while all that was going on, above them the Admirals at COMSUBPAC have been extremely worried about the Lansing. Nobody wants a missing submarine under any circumstances, but to have one wandering rogue while there's an international incident brewing is a potential disaster. Soon after losing contact, COMSUBPAC sent the attack sub USS Mako (another fake name) into the Sea of Japan to try and find the Lansing. The Mako found the Lansing just as she was preparing to fire her Tomahawks (right before the Captain regained control). Detecting the flooding of the launch tubes, the Mako frantically contacted COMSUBPAC, reporting that the Lansing was about to launch a nuclear attack!

COMSUBPAC has no choice now but to order the Mako to sink the Lansing to prevent her from starting WWIII. Nobody wants this, but the alternative is potential Armageddon as the Chinese would retaliate with nuclear weapons of their own. The Mako runs in at full speed and puts two torpedoes in the water.


Another top-shelf computer display, showing the torpedoes racing towards them.

Lansing's crew suddenly realizes that, despite their differences, if they don't do something they are all dead. The Captain orders the boat to dive deeper and noise-maker countermeasures are kicked out to try and decoy the torpedoes away. All this is shown via some pretty good underwater CGI, though I wonder if some of this isn't swiped from a different movie. The Lansing dodges the torpedoes and manages to break contact with the Mako by diving deep and fast.

With the Mako still out there looking to sink them, and still no way of contacting anyone, the Captain decides on a daring, and potentially fatal, plan. As they are currently near the Russian port of Vladivostok, the Captain orders the Lansing through the narrow shipping channel and into the harbor. The channel, however, is shallow and the currents are trecherous, the sea bed littered with rusting wrecks, giving it the nickname "Tin Can Alley".


That's a very helpful map, though it doesn't look anything at all like a nautical chart you'd expect to find on a Navy submarine.

The trip through Tin Can Alley is nerve-wracking, as the boat scrapes along through the sunken wrecks, the eeire sounds reverberating through the boat's hull. One false move and the hull will be ripped open and the boat sent to the bottom. But it works, as the Mako pulls up, unwilling to follow the Lansing in her suicide run.

Through the channel and now into Vladivostok harbor, the Captain orders the Lansing surfaced. A two-second look through the periscope is all it takes to see that Vladivostok is quite fine, and not a molten slagheap of radioactive craters. Proof positive that there was indeed no nuclear war.


The view through the periscope.

COMSUBPAC is contacted (via a contraband cellphone) and all is settled, the Russians are contacted and they send a tug to escort them to safety and the Mako is called off. The Captain and the CPO exchange some lame dialogue up on the sail and even manage to crack a strained grin each other, aware that they just barely managed to stave off global nuclear annihilation.


The end.

The movie ends here, but it really should end with a reading of the United States' Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 94, which says...

Mutiny or Sedition
(a) Any person subject to this code (chapter) who--

(1) with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses, in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do his duty or creates any violence or disturbance is guilty of mutiny;

(2) with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of lawful civil authority, creates, in concert with any other person, revolt, violence, or other disturbance against that authority is guilty of sedition;

(3) fails to do his utmost to prevent and suppress a mutiny or sedition being committed in his presence, or fails to take all reasonable means to inform his superior commissioned officer or commanding officer of a mutiny or sedition which he knows or has reason to believe is taking place, is guilty of a failure to suppress or report a mutiny or sedition.

(b) A person who is found guilty of attempted mutiny, mutiny, sedition, or failure to suppress or report a mutiny or sedition shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.

By my count, there are at least 14 crewmembers of the USS Lansing, both officers and enlisted men, who are looking at court-martial for mutiny when they get back to America. And seeing the violent way in which the mutiny was carried out, the potential for WWIII because of it, and the death of the boat's Executive Officer in the process, I'd have to believe that the officers (if not all of them) would certainly receive the death penalty for their actions. But that's a whole other movie. [Editor Pam: I think you're right. The XO is probably lucky that he's dead. But I can't believe that the Navy hasn't considered that something like this could happen and come up with a contingency plan. Admittedly it's unlikely to happen, but surely under no circumstances is a captain permitted to fire off nuclear missiles toward any place he feels is appropriate, if he's received no orders and has no idea what's going on.]

Written in September 2007 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda and Darci Sharver.



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